Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zero tolerance for zero tolerance rules

It will be no surprise to some of my readers that I'm disturbed by much of what passes for society these days. It used to be that people figured things out as they went along. They looked at a situation and tried to come up with the best solution. Maybe they consulted with those nearby, or acted on their own. Sometimes they might not have all the facts, or they might not understand that some facts are more important than others, but they muddled along.

Have you heard this phrase or a variant of it, "make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else"? My earliest context for that phrase is reading about plane crashes when I was a child. (My dad was an airline pilot and I was crazy about airplanes.) An investigator was talking about the process of understanding what had happened to cause the crash, and how to apply what they had learned to the airline industry. I was impressed by the enormous efforts the investigators would go to, including picking up every scrap of airplane and reconstructing it. This is one of the reasons why air travel is one of the safest ways to get to where you want to go, after you get past the absurd security theatre. Which takes zero tolerance to a whole new level.

There is an entire science to failure analysis and at least one of my readers can speak to it better than I can. Investigating airplane crashes helped create this science. They took the facts, then dug deeper and deeper to learn the why behind the why. And the why behind that. It wasn't enough to know that a bolt failed, causing the sequence of events leading to an airplane and people strewn over the landscape. They'd look at the bolt metallurgy, who supplied the bolt, who installed it, and a zillion other things. Then they'd chase the facts back to manufacturers, service corporations, airlines, or regulatory bodies. It's an enormously expensive process, but we all agree that keeping airplanes flying is a good thing.

I forget the most recent time I heard that phrase, but it seems to be happening a lot, and in response to quite minor situations in the grand scheme of things.  It annoys me. The people saying it are essentially saying they want life to stop happening. Perhaps the number one rule about being alive is that shit happens, deal with it. These people want to write a set of rules that are trying to prevent an outcome but they don't realize that following those rules creates more issues for more people than the potential outcome would for a small number of people. They seem to think that the way to stamp out a particular outcome is to write a rule that forbids anything that might lead to that outcome. Then they remove all judgement by saying there is zero tolerance for any of those actions. Only then will they be safe from that outcome.

What happens then? Absurdity. Stupid, trivial situations blown up to being a federal case. People in jobs like court judges, cops, school teachers or principals, social workers, politicians, and many others; those professions get their hands tied, and often they seem to be pandering to a vocal minority. We pay many of those people quite well, have invested in their training, and chosen them from many applicants for the job, yet now we tell them we don't trust their judgement. It turns them into a robot, only able do decide if some situation meets the rules, (which it will, because that's the way they're written and some busybody will force them to deal with it) and then having to issue the declared judgement, no matter how ridiculous it is. In many cases the punishment is overly punitive for the "crime". In some cases you end up with small children being the focus of airline security, or someone urinating in public being declared a lifetime sex offender. (I don't want to know anything more about a mind that can conflate peeing and a sex offense.)

Rather than dealing with an outcome, when and where it happens, now every one of those situations has to be dealt with. This takes up the time of people who ought to have better things to do. Even worse is when the inevitable followup happens, with someone protesting the rule, or the result the rule generated. Follow the rules for an ridiculous result and you get pilloried in the court of sensible opinion. Unfortunately this seems to be getting smaller every day. In some cases the ridiculous result turns out to be an inappropriate result on the light side, and then you get all sorts of people piling on and more rules. The worst of all is trying to apply common sense; that only gets everybody pissed off. It's like we've lost all sense of proportion, or any sense of tolerance for things that make us uncomfortable. Or any sense of what's risky or not. Even before 9/11 worrying about terrorists hijacking your plane was not a sensible risk, since it was less likely than getting struck by lightning.

When you force people to make petty little decisions with no regard for the situation, you will get only petty little people in those positions. People that revel in the little bit of power they have, and they will work to extend it. These people like to make things miserable for other people as a way of validating their own lives, or compensating for a small dick, I don't know.

Then we wonder why poor teachers stick around while good teachers move on or give up. We wonder why social workers can't deal with child abuse or solve homelessness. We wonder why mandatory sentencing and three strikes rules don't solve or prevent crime. We wonder why a glorified security guard takes the time to find and confiscate a tiny nail file from the person flying the airplane. The people involved are choked with rules that stamp out common sense and professional judgement.

What I like about some sports is that to determine a winner all one needs is a sufficiently accurate timing mechanism. I was startled to discover that judges for ballroom dancing competitions are themselves judged. Their results are posted on the wall to be reviewed by contestants and dance authorities. If your results are too far out of line with the other judges, your credentials to be a judge are reviewed. I like that concept. I also like the concept of Ebay feedback, and user reviews for various businesses on the internet. There is an issue with poison pen reviews, of course, but nothing is perfect. Generally feedback is good, as is good pre-decision advice.

I am a huge believer in better results when judgement activities take place out in public view. A secretive process is a breeding ground for abuse. Reviewing a judgement ought to be an open process as well. I'm not sure how to balance privacy concerns, but lean toward the direction that individual privacy is not as important as ensuring that people in positions of power over others act fairly and responsibly. Those who abuse the process, whether by corrupt decision making, or by misleading those in positions of authority, or by making false accusations need to be identified and punished. People making consistently good decisions need to be supported and rewarded. We need to build in safeguards that allow for the possibility of human error, for we can all make mistakes, and yet be able to review those mistakes in the light of other decisions to help people make better decisions, and accept it when decisions don't go their way.

That last is a big one. Most two year olds learn the world does not revolve around them, though they nearly drive everyone around them crazy while doing so. If they do so. Some nominal adults appear not to have learned that. They think nothing bad should happen to them. If it does, it's someone else's fault. When they piously say that don't want that same thing to happen to other people, what they're really saying is that it shouldn't have happened to them. Even if they got what they had coming.

The ancient Greeks believed that it was important for each citizen to take part in the various governance activities for their city. Admittedly the citizens were a small fraction of the total number of people in the city. I think it's important that people take part in the politics of their city, province, and country, and it should be much easier to do so. Politics has a bad rep these days, but I mean it in the sense of groups of people making collective decisions. The more people that are involved in a decision the harder it becomes for bullies and the stupid to dominate the decision.

The internet has huge potential for sharing information. We've barely begun to use it. Maybe every court case transcript ought to be published on the internet, and the public be allowed to comment on it. Comment on the decision, comment when counsel says ludicrous things, or when something said is false to fact. Maybe even comment on the day to day proceedings. One person holding an opinion is probably a crank, albeit one entitled to hold that cranky opinion. But if many commenters have that opinion there ought to be a way for that feedback to be acted upon. Same thing for Human Right's commission findings. School boards. Police or judicial misconduct. Any meeting of people paid to be politicians. The list goes on.

Sure it takes time, but the TV industry is proof that there is a great deal of time wasted. Give people access to court documents and I can just about guarantee that "reality" TV will go away. No writer could make up what happens in court. Oh, wait, this all presumes literacy, which is a problem.

What if we could figure out a way of rewarding people for providing reviews of public decisions, or participating in the discussions? Maybe such people should pay less tax. Maybe people that provide consistent wise commentary and good advice ought to be given a salary so they can do it full time. Would more open access to discussion lead to better decisions? Could we reduce the number of rules if there is a wider pool of advice about dealing with a situation? Are all opinions equal?

I want to see society grow up a little bit. Prostitution hasn't been stamped out by any laws in any society in recorded history. Let's deal with it as a fact of life and get on with regulating it. Zero tolerance drug laws have filled the jails with people caught with trivial amounts of pot, yet do nothing about the people trafficking billions of dollars of crack or meth or cocaine. Zero tolerance removes the chance for people to learn from their mistakes. Zero tolerance gives no leeway for ambiguous situations, no respect for people's judgement ability, and no room to confer with others to find a sensible response. Rules and laws become ever more complex, trying to deal with more complex situations and the shortcomings of previous rules to the point where nobody knows what the rules are anymore. Time for a change.


  1. amazing post and you are tolerance isn't always an option. And in cases where it's a must it often doesn't happen (Church -> child abuse).

  2. zero tolerance for legislation. I hate to see someone I've arrested for Rape of Child be pled to an Assualt 3rd with no sex offender registration required. GRRRR!

  3. Zero tolerance is a version of what engineers term "clampdown." It's actually a byproduct of the method used to try to control behaviour (I added the "u" for Canada). Trying to streamline the process by removing the possibility of arbitrary judgment makes it inevitable.

    (btw, today I mentioned triathlons for the first time ever on my blog... not in a good way).

  4. Great rant! unfortunately, I think that your solution (forgive me if I oversimplify) causes a little bit of information overload... even for us folks who are literate, court documents (etc.) can be time-consuming and mind numbing (and not in the way most people want to be numbed)


Looking forward to reading your comment!